The Neurochemistry of Music

Vegetables and classical music. What could these two unrelated things possibly have in common? Well, current day society has implanted a vague sense in our minds that both of them are good for us. We probably all know why vegetables are good for us, but if you don’t, ask the woman who probably told you to eat your vegetables every day as a child. She will probably have an answer somewhere along the lines of a cleaner digestive system and a healthier body. However, if you ask her why classical music is good for us, she’ll most likely just shake her head and ignore the question. Many people do not exactly know why classical music is good for the brain, even though a lot of them play it to their newborns in order to achieve the benefits of the “Mozart Effect”.

Based on a study from 1993, the “Mozart Effect” is the main connection that people think about when the words brain and music come together. Many people know that music from Mozart has been proven to make focusing much easier, but not many know about the true reasons for why this happens. This ignorance sparked the idea for the series of blog posts to come. People should know what is actually occurring in the brain when they hear music.

Reward, Motivation, and Pleasure -how dopamine and opioids affect the brain.

Music is universal. It is commonly recognized that a specific pitch is heard the same way in China as it is in America. If so, then what makes a certain grouping of pitches sound melancholy while another grouping of pitches sound happy? In the field of Neurochemistry, or the study of specific chemicals that play roles in brain activity, the effects of music can be divided up into how human beings respond to different types of music, mainly the four listed in figure 1 with their correspond neurochemical systems.

Dopamine

In order to efficiently discuss the connections of reward, motivation, and pleasure, it is essential to take into consideration what dopamine actually is. Dopamine is an organic chemical that is synthesized by neurons in the brain but are released all throughout the body in small and large dosages. Dopamine is often referred as one of the most influential neurochemicals in the human body as it regulates our thoughts, movements, attention spans, motivation, and learning. An example of a small release of dopamine from the brain would be the enjoyment of eating a peanut while an example of a large release of dopamine from the brain would be the rush of a large man with a big sword running towards you. Now, I invite you to listen to the attached audio file to this blog in order to feel for yourself what the release of dopamine feels like. Do you feel the dopamine neurons in your brain releasing dopamine in small individual packages? That’s right, you probably don’t because this is actually what is happening in your brain:

Figure 2.

As shown by Figure 2, the process of releasing dopamine into cells throughout your body looks a lot like a pepper grinder sprinkling pepper on the outer layer of cells, and essentially it is just that. Tyrosine, a type of amino acid used to make proteins, is what your brain derives from actions such as eating a slice of pizza or driving a motorcycle. These tyrosines form protein-like neurochemicals called L-dihydroxyphenylalanine or L-DOPA, which are precursors of dopamine. Then, just like the small granules of pepper in your pepper grinder, dopamine go through a synapse, or transfer, stage where dopamine is entered into the cell through dopamine receptors, which are basically guarded doorways that only allow dopamine into the cell.

Opioids

Opioids are chemicals that are used for pain and stress relief by binding to opioid receptors in both the brain and the nervous system. Opioids exert their salutary effects through a process of activating three opioid receptors in the brain. This activation of the opioid receptors is what causes the opioid system to function and allow the brain to emit feelings of pain or pleasure. For example, if you punch a wall after failing a chemistry test, your body senses pain, so it produces opioid to travel to the receptors in the brain and evoke pleasure, alleviating pain felt in your hand. So, failing chemistry tests actually initiate neurochemical reactions of producing opioids to alleviate pain. However, the body does not produce enough opioid naturally to mitigate pain felt from more severe or chronic injuries or diseases. Figure 3 shows the process of mitigating pain through the process of opioids travelling to their respective receptors in the back of the brain to relieve this pain.

                                                                                             

Although opioids are produced naturally in the body, music has been shown to stimulate the production of opioids in the brain and therefore enhance the emotions evoked from listening to music, giving the listener a sense of pleasure.

Conclusion: Music is an art form that human civilization has worked on for over a millennium, but only now are neurologists starting to realize that there is a whole new side of music that many people have overlooked.  Being able to specifically state the impact of music on the brain removes a huge uncertainty of whether or not music actually induce a change in emotions. The discovery that music emits dopamine and opioid directly show the correlation between music and neurological processes. This just might explain why that sweet jazz you listen to every morning may be something more important to your brain than you think.

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